By Sharon Dockweiler
Uta awoke in his hammock to a morning chorus of wild birds. The waves of the lagoon lapped softly upon the sand. In the distance a wildcat roared. Rain had brought forth the aroma of pine needles and the fruity smell of tou-tou fruit in the trees outside the bachelor’s hut.
“Uta!” he felt a tou-tou fruit hit him in the head. “Get up, Magic One! Today is the day!”
Sun-kissed men and boys of all ages, with long braids, and striped tattoos, emerged from their hammocks, stretching and wandering off to relieve themselves. Each murmured a greeting to Uta.
“Come, Magic One. Sprinkle your morning dew and heal us all.”
“Oh, don’t tease him. You only wish you had been chosen.”
“Get dressed before the seaplane leaves without you.”
“Yes, we want to see you in your fancy, new clothes.”
“Don’t eat too much for breakfast. You might get sick on the voyage.”
“Will you miss us, Uta?” This came from Nya Nya, the youngest in the bachelor tent.
“Of course I will miss you Nya Nya.”
“Where is this school, Uta?”
“It’s in a place called Buffalo.”
“What is a buffalo?”
“I think it is big like a che-che, but it only eats grass. It is in a place called New York, in America.”
“How can a place be new, Uta? Did the gods just make it?”
“Oh, Nya Nya, I will miss you.”
“Then don’t go, Uta.”
Uta threw his long braid over his shoulder, sat back down on his hammock and motioned for his young friend to join him. “Nya Nya, do you remember when we were in the missionary hospital?”
“When my mama and papa died,” said Nya Nya.
“Yes, and mine too. They all died because there was disease in the water. I am going to learn how to keep our people from getting sick from the water-fever ever again. I am going to learn to irrigate crops, so we will never go hungry, and to build stronger houses, to protect us from the storms. Imagine, Nya Nya, there will be no more bonfires of death.”
“The science-magic will do this?”
“It’s not magic, Nya Nya, but yes, the science can do this. I have read about it in books, and John Slythe has promised it is so.”
Outside the tent, the village was awake. The seaplane was at the lagoon. The logo on its side said Health Forward, Inc. Monjuri, Uta’s aunt, saw him emerge. She motioned for him to join her at breakfast. John Slythe of Health Forward, and his pilot, Hiram, were with her.
“Ah, there you are!” said John. “Are you ready?
“Yes, sir. I am excited.”
“Let me see you in your fine clothes,” said Monjuri. Uta held his arms out and turned slowly showing off his new khakis, fresh white dress shirt and tennis shoes.
“You look like a Bevazim, a stranger.” Monjuri said. “I should hack you up and feed you to a che-che before you attack us all.” The villagers laughed.
“You didn’t hack us up when we came,” said John smiling.
“We had an off day,” said Monjuri. “Besides, after those crazy missionaries, you looked harmless.”
“And you fed us chocolate!” said Nya Nya. This got a big laugh.
Monjuri enfolded Uta in a giant hug. “Remember us, my Cricket. Remember your island. Go and learn your magic, but come back as one of us.”
Uta had no luggage, only what he was wearing. Health Forward had promised to provide for his needs and give him a stipend for spending money.
The seaplane took them to the larger island of Tsubo where the missionaries had brick buildings surrounded by a fence. Here were the school where Uta had lived and the hospital where his family had died.
Uta thought the buildings were ugly. They looked like a wound upon the jungle, but they also seemed strong and effective against storm or attack. Without the missionaries and their hospital, he wouldn’t have survived the water-fever. He would never have gone to school or learned that there was a way to stop the deaths.
From there they took another plane, then a van ride to the city of Ahman-Tu. The roads were bumpy, and he was glad he hadn’t eaten much in the morning. Throughout the journey, he and John discussed what he would encounter in New York.
“It’s going to be cold. We’ll have to get you a warm coat and some winter boots.”
“I like the cold,” Said Uta. “I love to lie awake in my hammock without a blanket during the rainy season. It’s invigorating.”
“This will be a bit colder. We probably shouldn’t have started you in the January semester. They have about eight feet of snow in Buffalo right now.”
“Snow? What’s snow?”
“You’re in for a lot of surprises, kid.”
As they approached Ahman-Tu, they came to a river. On the other side, glass and metal skyscrapers gleamed in the sun, linked by curving roadways and bridges. This, thought Uta, is how life should be: clean, level, square. The view made Uta think of sharp, rows of numbers set across a page. Yes, math and science, he thought, these are the answer to living well.
On the other side of the river, though, Ahman-Tu wasn’t as beautiful as it had seemed. Large metal cans, overflowing with foul-smelling refuse, lined cement walkways, around dirty buildings. There were more people than he’d ever imagined, all packed together, too close and too serious. Sound overwhelmed him: the honking of horns, sirens, and yelling. Uta could taste dirt in his mouth.
“How do people live here?”
“You get used to it,” said John.
“I would not want to.”
In Ahman-Tu, they stopped at several fancy stores. John bought a suitcase, a backpack, some clothing, personal items, and school supplies for Uta. Last they went to a gleaming-clean store where John purchased a cell phone and a silver laptop. Uta held the laptop in awe. “It looks like it fell from the heavens.”
“Wait ’til you turn it on. I’ll set it up for you and teach you the basics before school starts. You’ll pick it up fast.”
Uta opened the laptop and ran his hand over the keys. The strangeness of his new life hit him hard. He suddenly longed for Monjuri, Nya Nya, the sunsets over the lagoon, and a sweet, pulpy tou-tou fruit. Tears welled in his eyes, but he hid them.
They took a small plane to a bigger city. As they flew over the Atlantic, the clouds surrounded them in pink pillars. So this is how people manage to live in cities, he thought. They fly in planes like birds, or they live up high in skyscrapers, above the filth and ugliness, to see this beauty.
When they landed, they were met by the dean of the college, Dave Fribley. Dave carried a puffy blue coat, a pair of boots and a shopping bag. Uta shivered as he shook Dave’s hand.
“Oh, Son, let’s get you dressed more appropriately,” said Dave. He motioned Uta toward the men’s room. The two re-emerged minutes later with Uta dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, a pair of winter-weight jeans and waterproof winter boots. Back at arrivals, the men wrapped him in the puffy blue coat, a dark blue ski cap, a scarf and thermal gloves.
“I have never worn so much on my body in my life,” he said, “even when we do the Kayhoota Dance—and that costume always makes me stumble.”
“Trust me, you’ll need it. It’s four degrees out, son.”
“Is that possible?” Uta asked. Dave and John simply smiled as they headed for the parking lot. The doors swished open as they approached. Outside a raging wind blew what looked like delicate white flowers past. The landscape and all the cars were covered with a thick blanket of white. Then a blast of cold hit Uta’s body full force. He had never known cold like that before. It felt like someone had slapped him hard in the face.
Snow blew into his eyes, blinding him. Before they reached the car, he could feel the stinging cold leeching through his jeans, his gloves, his hat. Again he felt tears welling. He fought them back and laughed at his own weakness so soon in his adventure. John and Dave were dressed only half as warmly as he, yet they were not crying. Yes, this would be a tale the villagers would never believe—snow!
As they drove up into the mountains, Uta was astonished by the beauty of conifers in mountain snow and tiny towns with fancy wooden houses, painted in bright colors that peeked through the falling flakes. These were villages he thought he could get used to.
When they reached the college, the two men stayed with him through the registration line and brought him to his dorm room. Dave got him settled as John set up the computer.
“I have you hooked up with wi-fi. That means you can get on the internet.” John had been explaining the wonders of technology throughout their trip. “I have a surprise for you. Hiram, our seaplane pilot, brought a generator and a laptop to your village so you can contact your aunt whenever you want.”
John hit a few keys, and a reflection of himself popped up. Then the screen divided into two squares. In the other square was a picture of Monjuri. It moved. It spoke!
“Cricket? Are you there?”
John turned the laptop so that Uta’s face showed in the first square.
“Auntie! I am here! I am here in Buffalo. You would not believe it. It is snowing.”
“Snowing? What is that?”
“It is cold, cold flowers that fall from the sky. They form thick blankets on the ground that harden and become slippery. It is dangerous and beautiful and frightening all at once. I love it. And look…” He stood and showed her his puffy coat which he hadn’t yet removed. “They’ve dressed me like a Popo bird, and I don’t care! It keeps me warm. It is too cold out to complain.”
“Oh, my Cricket, it is so good to see you excited and well. I have been floating cinnamon on the waves to convince Ginninni and the other gods to keep you safe and happy.”
When they were finished, John pressed a button and the screen went blank. Uta realized a young man his own age was unpacking a suitcase into the other dresser in the room.
“This is Simon,” said Dave. The young man smiled and held out his hand..
“I guess we’re roomies.”
“We hand-picked Simon to take care of you this semester. You’re in great hands. If you have any questions Simon can’t help you with, here’s my phone number.” He handed Uta a business card. John rummaged for his own card and passed it to Uta. Simon gave them both an exasperated look and took the cards from him.
“Honestly,” he said, “Old people don’t think of anything.” He grinned. “Pass me your phone.” Uta did so, and Simon typed the two names and phone numbers, as well as his own, into speed dial.
“See?” said Dave. “Great hands.”
The next few weeks were a whirl of carrying heavy loads of books uphill on icy walkways, tasting new foods, and learning new customs. The actual classwork was a peaceful respite from the strangeness of his new life. Simon introduced him to many new friends. Others just walked up and introduced themselves, drawn perhaps by the long, straight braid down Uta’s back, his thick, honeyed accent, or the three-barred tattoo beneath his eye.
“Is that a gang tatt?”
Uta had learned about gang tattoos and was quick to explain, “No, it is a mark of achievement. It means I have completed three trials.”
“What did you have to do?”
“Did the tattoo hurt?”
“Is that like having a bar mitzvah?”
“Guys, guys,” said Simon, “Let him breathe. Go ahead, Uta, answer whatever questions you want to, or none of them.” He winked at Uta who smiled. They were at lunch with Ginny, who was a Bio major, Kim from Eco Science, and Brian from Mechanical Engineering.
“For one trial I felled a twelve-point bova. Its antlers were wider than the length of this table. The whole tribe ate for two days.”
“What’s a bova?”
“What did you use? Arrows?”
“I had to do it on my own. I gathered venom from the glands of an ansido frog. It does not kill. It only disorients. I painted arrows with it. One drove deep into the bova’s neck. He ran about a mile before he fell. I used my machete to kill him. But then big cats smelled the blood. Thankfully, the elders had me watched. If the others had not come, I would have been the appetizer at the cats’ feast.
“The venom of an ansido frog?” asked Ginny. “I’ve heard of trials using venom from the Sonoran Desert Toad to produce a new antidepressant.”
“They’re using venom to make medicine?” asked Brian.
“Pharmaceutical companies are always studying new species of plants and animals to find agents they can use for medications,” Kim said. “If you want to kill something off, like a virus or a cancer cell, why not use a poison?”
“But antidepressants?” said Brian.
“That venom is a hallucinogen,” said Ginny, “which they have found can have long-lasting positive effects against depression. Big Pharma makes a killing off stuff like this.”
“Uta,” Kim asked, “What sort of company is footing the bill for you being here?”
“Oh, wow,” said Kim. “They’re gonna rape your island.”
“No,” said Uta. “They told our elders they could teach us to protect ourselves from water disease and storms and...”
“…evil corporate bloodsuckers?” said Kim.
“What are you saying?”
“Once you acclimate your tribe to the idea of an infrastructure and the importance of trade,” said Kim, “they’ll step in and start collecting samples of the flora and fauna. They’ll erect buildings, roads, parking lots, and airports. People will come in and spread more disease.
“When they find agents they can use in their products, like ancido venom, they will have no qualms about seeking out and collecting every ancido frog for their labs. Ever hear of ecological interdependence? Without the ancido frog, other parts of your eco system will go off balance. More species will die.”
“Big Pharma doesn’t do that anymore,” said Brian. “They find an agent and then make a synthetic version.”
“Only if they can make one that works as well and is cost effective,” said Ginny.
“But what about the bad publicity?” said Brian.
“What about it? You know this stuff goes on, but do you know the details? Do you know enough to boycott the companies? Would you if they made a medication for someone you loved?”
After their nightly skype call, Uta said goodbye to Monjuri. He had been burning to tell her about the conversation he’d had with his friends, but that would have to wait. Sickness was back in the village—the water-fever again. Nya Nya had not lived long enough to get to the hospital. Uta stared at his phone for a while before he picked it up and dialed John.
“Do you plan on raping my island?”
“What? Wait, what?”
Uta told him what his friends had said.
John sighed. “Look, Uta, your tribe has existed for god-knows how long. Every year you get wiped out by storms. Every couple of years some disease comes along and knocks out half of you. You can keep doing that as long as you want, but if you want things to change, you have to accept change.”
Words caught in Uta’s throat. Finally he croaked, “Will you kill all the ancido frogs?”
“Uta, I could swear to you today that I will never kill your ancido frogs. Will that stop anyone else from coming in and killing all your ancido frogs? No. But what is stopping them from coming in now and simply killing all of you and your ancido frogs—or your ekekes, or your che-ches or your eelatas?
Uta was silent.
“You know how they call your studies science-magic? You keep telling them it isn’t magic. Well, you’re right, we’re not teaching you magic. Maybe the magic is inside of you—Maybe it is your will, your strength, to keep the culture of your village alive throughout the changes that are coming. You’re going to have to bring that magic, because you are the only person in your village with a clear idea of what can go wrong.
Uta hung up the phone. He felt tears well in his eyes. He let them flow freely. In his head he saw a vision of his lagoon lined with cans of refuse in front of cement buildings. On the beach was a pyre—yet another bonfire of death.
How he wished for a tou-tou fruit.